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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Harvard Girl

July-August 2002

For the last two years, Harvard junior Yiting Liu has been at the epicenter of a new phenomenon in her native China: celebrity status for Ivy League students whose success stories are chronicled in the budding genre of how-to manuals for "family education." (The Chinese term refers to character-building based on relationships between parents and children.) Liu's story, penned by her parents and aptly titled Harvard Girl Yiting Liu, was the first of its kind and immediately landed on China's bestseller list, holding its spot for 16 months. To date, Harvard Girl has sold more than 1.43 million copies—autographed books flew off the shelves in Beijing and Shanghai—and has inspired no fewer than 15 copycat books detailing child-rearing methods that have produced Oxford-, Cambridge-, and Columbia-caliber scholars.

The driving force behind Harvard Girl's immense popularity, Liu says, is her parents' educational theories, which consciously address Chinese parents' growing anxiety about proper family education. "Because China has changed so much in the past 20 years, a lot of things need to catch up. Family education is one of them," she explains. "People are definitely looking to reform the education system both on a macro and a micro level."

Liu's parents—journalists by training—had long wanted to share their rigorous, systematic approach to parenting with other families. They methodically chronicled their daughter's upbringing, trying to distill the experience into a set of principles. Liu's mother kept a notebook—"almost like a research diary, definitely very emotional but also conscious of summarizing good approaches for reference"—and by first grade, Liu was keeping one, too. "I wrote about what happened at school, how I felt, my thinking processes," she says. "After every argument, I had to write a diary entry." By the age of 18, Liu had produced a first-hand report of growing up, at home and at school. Her own notes—along with her mother's diary entries and her father's theoretical discussions about education—make up the bulk of the chronological, narrative-heavy Harvard Girl.

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Cover girl Yiting Liu is a Chinese publishing sensation—and a focused student at Harvard.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Before the book could become reality, however, Liu's parents needed to establish credibility as family education experts—and that's where she came in. "People are not just going to listen to you without credentials," Liu says. "My parents had been waiting for me to go to university and to become a socially recognizable success so they could use that as a start to get people to look at their theory."

Although she was clearly headed to one of China's top universities, a trip to the United States on a month-long exchange program opened Liu's eyes to American universities and to a liberal-arts education. She made the difficult decision to proceed with applications to American universities while continuing to study for Chinese university entrance exams. Her acceptance at Harvard, however, sealed her decision: "Harvard is the school around the world," she says. And, she adds, "When I got to Harvard, it was much stronger proof" that her parents' educational theories were valuable.

Now Liu, an applied math and economics concentrator living in Mather House, has become a "national daughter" of sorts. She receives letters from Chinese children and parents alike, praising her accomplishments and addressing her in traditional familial terms. On her summers home from college, she has toured with her parents to promote Harvard Girl, holding signings and interviews in Beijing and Shanghai bookstores. In the summer of 2000, Liu capitalized on her celebrity to garner media coverage for a Beijing student conference that was sponsored by the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR), a student organization that the "Harvard Girl" currently chairs.

Although Harvard's name brought the book its initial publicity, Liu says Harvard Girl keeps selling because Chinese families have embraced its direct, manual-like style. Given the thousands of letters the Lius have received since the book's publication—some pure fan mail for Yiting, many others requests for answers to pressing queries about child-rearing—a sequel is under way. But, busy college student that she is, Yiting Liu will not be contributing to her parents' project this time. "I need to write all my papers here at Harvard," she explains.